Hayes makes emphatic statement with treble at season opener

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David Hayes made an emphatic statement on the opening day of the Hong Kong racing season – he’s a force to be reckoned with again.

Naboo Attack’s brilliant win in the Class One HKSAR Chief Executive’s Cup (1,200m), the jaw-dropping debut of Nervous Witness and the victory of Lucky Maryknoll ensured he went home on Sunday with his first Sha Tin treble in more than 16 years.

Hayes is already a legend of the sport – he won two Hong Kong trainers’ championships (1997-98 and 1998-99) during his first stint in the city and is a member of the Australian racing Hall of Fame – but he found things tough when he returned last season, finishing 14th with 32 winners. An underwhelming number for a man of his stature.

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But both he and his horses are better for the experience and the 58-year-old looks set to re-establish himself among Hong Kong racing’s elite in 2021-2022.

Naboo Attack made it two wins from two starts in Hong Kong with a devastating display in the day’s feature – prompting jockey Karis Teetan to compare him to former champion Able Friend.

Already the biggest horse in the jurisdiction at 1,377 pounds, the five-year-old has the talent to match and he stormed over the top of Lucky Patch and Duke Wai to give Hayes the first Class One win of his return.

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“It’s a big thrill. I didn’t manage to win one last season, so it was good to be on the track getting a trophy,” he said.

“When he jumped well I just thought he needed a little bit of luck and he got that at about the 300m and he was able to get into his stride. I think he’s a top-class horse with more to come.”

Even though connections believe Naboo Attack will also be strong at a mile, Hayes is reluctant to change a winning formula at this stage and is targeting the Group One Hong Kong Sprint.

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“I reckon he’ll get to a mile but if he’s winning at the sprint trips, I’ll just keep him fresh. His two fresh runs have been brilliant. We might try stretching him out after December – [the Hong Kong Sprint] would be the early target race. If he kept getting beaten running on, then we’d switch,” he said.

“He’s a horse who can run 1:07 off a hot tempo and that’s good enough to compete in December.”

David Hayes set to attack season opener with big expectations for 2021-22

On any normal day, the manner of Naboo Attack’s win would be the main talking point of the meeting but he had to share that honour with stablemate Nervous Witness.

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He was the spruik horse of the card – every taxi driver in Hong Kong had been given the tip after an eye-catching trial – and he justified his $1.30 price with an utterly arrogant display in the Class Four Lin Fa Shan Handicap (1,000m).

It was like a glorified track gallop – jockey Zac Purton spent more energy looking over his shoulder as he cruised away to salute by three lengths.

Nervous Witness sports the colours made famous by superstar sprinter Silent Witness and while he has a long way to go to reach those dizzying heights, he looks like a serious specimen.

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“I think that’s the most impressive debut I’ve had since I’ve been back in Hong Kong, that was pretty easy,” Hayes said. “Apart from his trial he’s never been let go, so that’s what is so exciting about the horse – he hasn’t been drilled down for the race. You don’t see Zac Purton look around that many times do you.

“I could have run him last season and I just thought he would be better as a second-season horse with a trial and then a back off then a build-up. He’ll go through the classes pretty quickly I think, I expect him to win a few in a row.”

As exciting as that run was, Purton believes there is plenty of room for improvement.

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“As far as first starters go, for the good ones, that’s what you expect them to do, right? It was just a matter of seeing how he would handle race day,” he said. “He was a little bit on edge in the parade. He’s got a little bit to learn.

“He’s obviously blessed with natural ability, he moves well. He was strong through the line so he’s an exciting horse going forward.”

Lucky Maryknoll also has a unique story – she’s the only female horse racing in Hong Kong – and she’s the first locally trained one to win since Bernard’s Choice in 2015, proving too strong in the Class Five Kowloon Peak Handicap (1,200m).

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It was also a welcome result for Brazilian jockey Ruan Maia, who tasted success in his only ride of the day, but his effort was soured after he received a two-meeting suspension for careless riding.

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